As Covid-19 shakes up the art world, cancelling in-person fairs, damping down demand and postponing biennials, art professionals are struggling to see how their sector will evolve in the coming period.
One project – though six years in the works – offers up an idea. Jettisoning the traditional model of discrete, permanent galleries, Cromwell Place in London is drawing from the freelance economy: a members-only, high-spec venue that offers gallery space and private viewing rooms to rent when galleries need them, and a base for socialising and networking throughout the year.
The project is the brainchild of John Martin, the co-founder of Art Dubai and owner of the eponymous London gallery. He developed the idea to address what he saw as inefficiencies in the art world, particularly the mismatch between galleries’ expenditure on rent and the fact that most of their income was generated elsewhere.
“Galleries were spending money 100 per cent of the time for rent, but making most of their money at art fairs,” the British gallerist explains. “It didn’t make sense for the cash flow of these small businesses."
With its private viewing rooms and services like art technicians, storage and swanky catering, Cromwell Place also addresses the gulf between top-tier galleries, which have numerous international outposts, departments and lavish entertaining budgets, and smaller or medium-size galleries, which are being increasingly squeezed.
“We wanted to take the logistics out of setting up a show,” he says. “All the admin that keeps galleries from focusing on what they are actually meant to do.”
So far, 50 galleries and non-profits have joined, including Lawrie Shabibi, The Third Line and Tabari Artspace from Dubai, Hafez Gallery from Jeddah, and Lehmann Maupin from New York. Eight exhibitions have launched for the site's opening on Saturday, October 10.
Private viewing rooms and the site's restaurant and bar are meant to attract not only gallery members, but arts professionals and consultants who need a base in which to conduct business.
However, the long-in-the-making site opens to an art world that has been changed by the coronavirus. The art fair model, which involves bringing large numbers of people to one space in order to buy artwork, is looking increasingly shaky for most fairs in the coming year. One gallerist says that the trend might be back towards sales made in galleries, and away from art fair income. Another suggests further consolidation among smaller galleries. The only trend most arts professionals can – begrudgingly – agree upon is towards further online sales.
But Martin and managing director Preston Benson are confident that Covid’s disruption makes leaner and more flexible models such as Cromwell Place even more attractive.
“Covid accelerated trends that were already in the making,” says Benson. “Rents were spiralling and pricing people out. This is a project that brings galleries together.”
Many of the galleries that have joined Cromwell Place have their primary sites abroad and are using this as a base for collectors in London, even if they might be from the Middle East and Africa.
“It’s really important to be doing things physically,” says William Lawrie, of Alserkal Avenue’s Lawrie Shabibi, which is showing new works by Moroccan artist Mohamed Melehi. “There was a sense over the summer that we had to be active rather than participating in online viewing rooms only.”
"Having a site here gives us the chance to have synergies," he continues. "Melehi's show is currently at Alserkal Avenue. Now that people aren't travelling, it means we can show the work to people in London as well."
Aspan Gallery, which was established in 2017 in Almaty, Kazakhstan, has booked a membership to raise awareness of its programme, which centres around the generation of artists who came of age during the tumultuous break-up of the Soviet Union. Meruyert Kaliyeva, the gallery’s founder, is showing light-boxes by artist Almagul Menlibayeva, who investigates the clash of traditional and modern roles for women, and Yerbossyn Meldibekov, who tracks the changing waves of political and cultural allegiances in Central Asia.
Like any members club, Cromwell Place will ultimately be judged by the quality of its participants. Veteran art journalist Georgina Adams chairs the selection committee, and well-known New York gallery Lehmann Maupin has taken a permanent space in one of the three townhouses, with an opening show hat includes works by Kader Attia, Lari Pittman, and Mandy El-Sayegh.
The membership fees are tiered, ranging from £6600 ($8,547) for permanent galleries and £6000 for exhibiting galleries, and £2640 a year for members such as art consultants and collectors who simply wish to use the facilities. All price include VAT, and there is a joining fee of £3300 on top. Non-profits get a reduced rate.
For the opening, space was given over to the Mother Art Prize, which is awarded to artists who are also mothers or who have caring responsibilities, in order to redress the challenges women artists face if they start families. The prize comes with $500 and the winner – this year Helen Benigson – gets a solo exhibition at the Showroom Gallery in London.
Sited in South Kensington, down the road from the V&A and across the street from the Institut Francais, the venue comprises three Victorian townhouses that have been knocked together and refurbished to provide 45,000 square feet of exhibition space. The site has art credentials: one of the townhouses – the former no. 5 – belonged to portrait painter John Lavery and his wife Hazel Lavery.
Cromwell Place's bar area is set in what had been the Lavery's salon, with ornate stucco details and decorative mirrors still on the walls. The main events venue is in the high-ceilinged room that Lavery used as his studio, where, Martin tells me, Winston Churchill learned to paint.
"The story goes that Churchill was having his portrait painted by Lavery," Martin recounts. "He was gloomy, sitting there sulking. In walks Hazel – this great, gregarious society beauty. People fell in love with her instantly. She saw Churchill and asked him to try painting an apple that was sitting in the room. He did – and loved it, and he came back for lessons. This is where he became a painter."
It’s a high bar to set in terms of contribution to art history, but rethinking the art landscape is not a bad place to start.